For openers, who knew that if Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby first couldn’t make it into the Pennsylvania Derby starting gate, a horse he beat while breaking his maiden for a $16,000 claiming tag would deputize for him and not only run in the Parx Grade 1, but would win the damn thing, too!
Math Wizard, claimed out of the race and, also finding a new home for two subsequent starts; being jailed, running back and winning for the same price, a 7-length score that earned him a class rise, which is when young Saffie Joseph Jr. haltered him for $25K. And the rest is improbable history.
Math Wizard picked up three checks in graded company; the Wood Memorial, and Ohio and Indiana Derbies, failed to hit the board last time in West Virginia then, off that dull performance behind Mr. Money, makes his Grade 1 debut in Bensalem and wins the Pennsylvania Derby? Crazy!
Edgard Zayas was named to ride originally but didn’t, and so the reins fell into the lap of the nation’s leading jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., in town primarily to ride Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Princess, the second favorite in the G1 Cotillion.
“Irad started his career here,” Joseph said later. “I thought he’d fit the horse really well.” Zayas remained in South Florida where he rode a pair of claiming fillies to victory at Gulfstream Park, eschewing a 31-1 PA Derby winner.
“People give racing a bad rap but this is the greatest game,” an emotional Saffie said thereafter. “The only thing I can describe to this feeling is my kids. When I see my kids smile that’s the only thing in life that compares to these horses.
“That’s how good racing is. These horses get so much care… I spend so much time with them, more time than I spend with my kids,” said Joseph ruefully, fighting back the tears in a humbling, emotion-filled moment.
Jerry, Make Way for Johnny
It is a span of 28 years, from Private Man to Significant Form, with 658 graded stakes winners in between that separates John R. “Johnny” Velazquez from his peers, putting him in rarified air that of a race riding G.O.A.T.
From the 1991 Ohio Derby to Saturday’s Grade 3 Pebbles, 660 graded career wins is an astounding number, equal to only the great Jerry Bailey.
It is appropriate that these two riders share this milestone in racing history because they share the same attributes on horseback, talents that separated them from most of the riders that came before and after.
JR, as he is also known, is different from his mentor, Angel Cordero Jr., without whom “he wouldn’t be here,” Velazquez once said. He’s more like JD, as Bailey was once known, because they have/had a knack for finding the sweet spot in every race.
Bailey, like Velazquez, made trouble free rides, somehow always managing to save ground and invariably get through on the fence, so much so that the wise guys would complain that the other riders gave Bailey a “rail pass” to victory.
Johnny does it differently, like Bailey but unlike his mentor who insisted on making his own room. Velazquez simply stays out of the way, always in sync,always in rhythm, horse and rider as one. And always thinking, like yesterday, on Significant Form. His words:
“She was on the outside and I was worried she was going to be a little bit rank. She actually handled it pretty well. I tried to cover her up a little bit around the turn, riding close to the fence.
“I was kind of reeling in and out of there. I wanted to keep the competition behind [Joe Bravo’s Valedictorian]. “Right before the quarter-pole I just asked her to go and she ran off. It’s nice to ride these kind of horses.”
Sophie Doyle: Hands, Timing, and a First Grade 1
And not a bad, much improved filly, either. Street Band, also knocking on the door but never able to break through this season against the season’s best, did so yesterday at Parx. Her timing could not have been better. It’s now California here we come.
Doyle made the defeat of formerly unbeaten multiple Grade 1-winning Guarana look easy, but with plenty of help from her Jerry Jones-trained partner. Turn of foot is a term normally reserved for turf racing, when horses sprint late, not early. Street Band defied those norms yesterday.
Her move approaching the far turn was nothing less than electric. Even with Guarana, enjoying a perfect trip and making a solid turn-move at the lead, it was apparent that the #3 horse would get there. As the racetrackers say, she was a freight train passing a hobo.
“I had to go to Plan B and C,” said Doyle, thinking, “there’s so much speed in here I’m not going to rush her off her feet… I let her creep into the race in her own time. I just let her naturally take me around the outside. When we were coming around the home turn… she really exploded.
“When she came upside of Guarana, she matched her, put her head down, and she was game-on all the way to the wire. She never gave up. She’s so tough. She’s come out here today and really proved how good she is. She deserves to be at these Grade 1 races.”
As do you, Ms. Doyle. The Grade 1 Cotillion, like the PA Derby, was a Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ event.
“My first Grade 1. I’m absolutely over the moon. Fingers crossed now to the big one and the Breeders’ Cup,” where waters promise to get a lot deeper thanks to major elders Midnight Bisou and Elate.
But for now, Doyle, trainer and co-owner Jones, along with his wife Cindy and Ray Francis, should sit back and enjoy the moment their filly earned for them in a big way.
Laurel Park’s De Francis Dash Never Fails to Fire
It may only be a Grade 3 and $250,00 is slightly less than twice of what juvenile maidens race for at Kentucky Downs, but this Maryland fixture is always competitive and it takes a good horse to win it.
While no one is confusing Killybegs Captain with a Lite the Fuse, or a Smoke Glacken, a Cherokee Run or some notable winners of this dash but he is one the rise, signaling that recently with show finishes in both the G2 John A. Nerud and G1 Forego that maturity has made him a better racehorse.
Under deft handling from Eric Cancel, John Terranova’s five year old charge is just now beginning to develope. The De Francis was his first stakes win since he took the Pelican at Tampa Bay this winter, and first ever graded score.
“I had a lot of confidence, said Cancel post race. “The horse has been training very good. I’ve been watching him work and he’s been running his last few races super good. I never had a doubt that he could win this race.”
Super good and perhaps getting even better. The winning time of 1:08.10 was the fastest De Francis since equine rocket Richter Scale set a track record 1:07.95 19 years ago.
Hate the Name, Love the Runner
Everyone knew that Covfefe could run after she broke her maiden on debut by 9-1/4 lengths in 1:10 1/5 a little over a year ago. She was so impressive in that the connections stepped her up in class, distance and venue 21 days later when they tried to repeat in Belmont’s Grade 1 Frizette mile.
It turned out to be the only time in her career she finished off the board after first setting a blazing pace before fading to fourth behind the eventual Juvenile Fillies champion, Jaywalk.
Covfefe got her first stakes win this spring in the G3 Miss Preakness and her first Grade 1 after our-gutting Serengeti Princess in Saratoga’s stored G1 Test. She went seven-eighths again in Saturday’s listed Dogwood, her bridge to the Breeders’ Cup F & M Sprint. It was a perfect prep.
Tracking the fast Take Charge Angel comfortably from the outside, she moved easily to challenge after a half mile in 44.95, took the lead when Shaun Bridgmohan pleased, and powered away to win by 8 lengths.
Termed ridden out, she was merely cruising under the line in 1:20.51, only 7/100s shy of Groupie Doll’s seven year old 1:20.44 track record, getting her final furlong in 12.19.
Said trainer Brad Cox post-race: “On to Breeders’ Cup.” Exactly.